Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) Systems

SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) is a system operating with coded signals over communication channels so as to provide control of remote equipment (using typically one communication channel per remote station). The control system may be combined with a data acquisition system by adding the use of coded signals over communication channels to acquire information about the status of the remote equipment for display or for recording functions. It is a type of industrial control system (ICS). Industrial control systems are computer-based systems that monitor and control industrial processes that exist in the physical world.

SCADA systems historically distinguish themselves from other ICS systems by being large-scale processes that can include multiple sites, and large distances. These processes include industrial, infrastructure, and facility-based processes. Industrial processes include those of manufacturing, production, power generation, fabrication, and refining, and may run in continuous, batch, repetitive, or discrete modes. Infrastructure processes may be public or private, and include water treatment and distribution, wastewater collection and treatment, oil and gas pipelines, electrical power transmission and distribution, wind farms, civil defense siren systems, and large communication systems.

At Portland Engineering we have been working on SCADA systems for more than two decades. Our systems typically consist of some combination of the following:

  • Remote Terminal Units (RTUs) connect to sensors in the process and convert sensor signals to digital data. They have telemetry hardware capable of sending digital data to the supervisory system, as well as receiving digital commands from the supervisory system. RTUs often have embedded control capabilities such as ladder logic in order to accomplish boolean logic operations.
  • Programmable Logic Controllers (PLCs) connect to sensors in the process and converting sensor signals to digital data. PLCs have more sophisticated embedded control capabilities, typically one or more IEC 61131-3 programming languages, than RTUs. PLCs do not have telemetry hardware, although this functionality is typically installed alongside them. PLCs are sometimes used in place of RTUs as field devices because they are more economical, versatile, flexible, and configurable.
  • A telemetry system is typically used to connect PLCs and RTUs with control centers, data warehouses, and the enterprise. Examples of wired telemetry media used in SCADA systems include leased telephone lines and WAN circuits. Examples of wireless telemetry media used in SCADA systems include satellite (VSAT), licensed and unlicensed radio, cellular and microwave.
  • A data acquisition server is a software service which uses industrial protocols to connect software services, via telemetry, with field devices such as RTUs and PLCs. It allows clients to access data from these field devices using standard protocols.
  • A human–machine interface or HMI is the apparatus or device which presents processed data to a human operator, and through this, the human operator monitors and interacts with the process. The HMI is a client that requests data from a data acquisition server.
  • A Historian is a software service which accumulates time-stamped data, boolean events, and boolean alarms in a database which can be queried or used to populate graphic trends in the HMI. The historian is a client that requests data from a data acquisition server.
  • A supervisory (computer) system, gathering (acquiring) data on the process and sending commands (control) to the SCADA system.
  • Communication infrastructure connecting the supervisory system to the remote terminal units.
  • Various process and analytical instrumentation.

SCADA systems typically implement a distributed database, commonly referred to as a tag database, which contains data elements called tags or points. A point represents a single input or output value monitored or controlled by the system. Points can be either “hard” or “soft”. A hard point represents an actual input or output within the system, while a soft point results from logic and math operations applied to other points. Points are normally stored as value-timestamp pairs: a value, and the timestamp when it was recorded or calculated. A series of value-timestamp pairs gives the history of that point. It is also common to store additional metadata with tags, such as the path to a field device or PLC register, design time comments, and alarm information.

SCADA systems are significantly important systems used in national infrastructures such as electric grids, water supplies and pipelines. However, SCADA systems may have security vulnerabilities, so the systems should be evaluated to identify risks and solutions implemented to mitigate those risks.

HMI is typically linked to the SCADA system’s databases and software programs, to provide trending, diagnostic data, and management information such as scheduled maintenance procedures, logistic information, detailed schematics for a particular sensor or machine, and expert-system troubleshooting guides.

An important part of most SCADA implementations is alarm handling. The system monitors whether certain alarm conditions are satisfied, to determine when an alarm event has occurred. Once an alarm event has been detected, one or more actions are taken (such as the activation of one or more alarm indicators, and perhaps the generation of email or text messages so that management or remote SCADA operators are informed). In many cases, a SCADA operator may have to acknowledge the alarm event; this may deactivate some alarm indicators, whereas other indicators remain active until the alarm conditions are cleared.

If you have any questions regarding your SCADA system, or a SCADA system in general, consider PEI as your resource.


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